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Last week staffers from his syndicated talk show raced down to Miami in search of real live carjackers. On the advice of juvenile court Judge Tom Petersen, they contacted Alden Barnett, who directs the Dade Intensive Program, a residential facility for repeat offenders run by the State Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS). For five hours on Wednesday, the TV crew interviewed boys in the program and arranged for them to be transported to the Rusty Pelican, off the Rickenbacker Causeway, where filming would start at 1:00 p.m. the next day. The Miami site would be used as a remote by Geraldo, who would run the show from New York with his own studio audience.
A few hours before taping was to begin, HRS Acting District Administrator Anita Bock learned of the plan, and she was furious. State law forbids HRS from releasing any personal information about juvenile offenders, let alone allowing them to be put on display for Geraldo and his faithful. Bock phoned TV producer Kevin McMahon in New York and told him the deal was off. Or tried to tell him. "He was frantic," Bock recalls. "He kept harping on how they had spent $60,000 on the show already and set everything up. He said it was unconscionable that we would go back on our agreement." A series of phone calls ensued.
"The Geraldo people kept insisting this was going to be a positive show," says Laurie Ruviner, an HRS public information officer who took part in the discussions. "McMahon said they were going to do a story to bring tourism back to Miami. I took detailed notes of the conversation. He also wanted to show how rehab programs for juveniles were working. We don't get positive stories very often, so we decided to go with it."
But Bock remained leery. A lawyer reared in South Africa who had come to the agency from the private sector in January 1991 to serve as deputy, she was a protegee of Jim Towey, the former Dade district administrator who was named secretary of HRS in July. As the leading candidate for Towey's old job, the last thing Bock needed was the embarrassment of a Geraldo imbroglio. So she was understandably insistent with McMahon, specifying that the juveniles would not be allowed to discuss their alleged crimes or have their faces shown. McMahon suggested that the kids tie bandannas over their faces and wear sunglasses. "That should have given me a hint right there," Bock says ruefully.
There were plenty more hints to come. Using Miami's skyline as a backdrop, the Geraldo crew set up an improvised sound stage at the Rusty Pelican. A small audience had assembled by the time Bock arrived, including several women wearing T-shirts with slogans advocating harsher prison sentences. Another woman was clad in an incongruously skimpy bikini top -- to lend the show a Miami feel, a crew member explained to Ruviner. In the New York studio, Geraldo was poised with his own squadron of self-proclaimed carjackers, who had been recruited by the show's "street unit."
No sooner had Bock been told that none of the kids had arrived when she saw associate producer Dawn Sidney asking the boys to sign consent forms allowing their faces to be displayed. Outraged, Bock snatched the sheets and tore them up. Sidney apologized, assuring Bock the kids would be filmed with their backs to the camera. Despite the constant protestations of the Geraldo staff, Bock stationed herself behind a cameraman to keep watch, dispatching Ruviner to a TV monitor nearby.
Rivera bounded on-stage to deliver his introduction, an audio feed of which was broadcast live on the Miami set. "All I heard was this applause and yelling," Bock remembers. "Then Geraldo said, 'We're here to talk about the bloody events in Miami, the bloody crimes.' You know how he talks."
It was downhill from there. Rather than a sobering forum on inner-city decay, the show -- titled "Florida Bloody Florida" -- degenerated into a circus. Embittered Miami audience members yelled at Bock's charges. Tourists recalled how they had been brutalized. At one point Geraldo, disgusted by the Miami kids' refusal to discuss their crimes, reportedly lashed out, "I've got my own thugs up here who won't hide behind this confidential stuff!"
After about half an hour, Bock says, it dawned on her "that the show wasn't really going to be positive at all." During a subsequent commercial break, she marched onto the set and announced that she was taking the kids home. It was the sort of confrontation tabloid TV thrives on. "The staff there went crazy," Bock remembers. "They were screaming, 'Get me New York! Get a microphone on this! Get a camera on these kids!' They kept running after us, trying to get the phone numbers of the kids. They followed us all the way to the parking lot. All the kids were complaining, 'But now we're not going to get paid.' I gave them all quite a talking to on the drive back."